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A New Leaf: 8 Conscious Choices For A Healthier Pregnancy

By Kelly Brogan, MD

I wasn’t always a clean-living crusader. Pregnancy has a way of turning on that “just tell me what to do to get this right!” switch, and, five years ago, when a friend gave me the book Green Babies, Sage Mamas, I began to recognize that I was in control of getting this right. Doctors aren’t taught to help women optimize health and wellness, and I had to learn to clean up my home and my body, one step at a time. I can still visualize my garbage can after reading that first book—it literally overflowed with my bathroom products, which had been instantly recognized as biohazardous poisons. I shook my head in amazement at the power of the word “natural” in advertising. Since that time, I have been on a mission to disseminate this information so that women can vote with their wallets for the betterment of their health. I believe in empowering women around their interactions with their environment so that they can feel in control, rather than victimized by some of the data that follows.

The Canadian organization Environmental Defence recently tested the umbilical cord blood of newborns for known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins, only to learn that each sample contained traces of from 55 to 121 such substances. This echoes a now-famous Environmental Working Group (EWG) Red Cross study in which more than 200 toxic agents were identified in each of 10 newborns, before they took their first breath. Gross! It is easy to be overcome by a feeling that the sky is falling when we consider the more than 80,000 chemicals registered in the Toxic Substances Control Act (the vast majority of which have never been studied for safety, and five of which have been banned since the 1970s). Even after formal bans, chemicals such as DDT can persist in the environment for decades, recirculating in our reproductive tracts.

I know this can feel like conspiring against an invisible villain: Can it really be all that dangerous? Aren’t most people pretty much fine? The truth is that we are watching epidemics of chronic disease unfold all around us and we know that these problems are environmentally driven. Some of us are certainly more sensitive than others, but our growing babes deserve some thoughtful consideration and conscious consumerism. I tell my friends and patients that it is like stepping outside into a freezing blizzard: Even if you only put on a couple layers of clothes, it’s still a whole lot better than being naked. Here are some proverbial layers to put on.

Punt the Plastic: Why? Because plastics, such as those labeled 3, 6 and 7 on the little triangle on the bottom, contain known toxins such as pthalates, styrene, Bisphenol A (BPA) and dioxins. These are hormone disruptors that can affect your brain, behavior, and endocrine glands (thyroid, pituitary, ovaries, etc.), and can increase your risk of cancer. Good old-fashioned glass is the most inert container to cook with and store hot foods in. You can buy a set of glass containers (like Snapware) for less than $40, and be assured of a long lifespan. Never microwave anything plastic. Be wary of shower curtains, toys made before 2009, toys made for kids over 12 (because it’s OK for them to have toxic plastic?), anything with that “new plastic” smell (like beach inflatables), and cashier receipts (wash your hands after touching them, or don’t accept them at all).

Clean Cleaning: Why? Because cleaning products, such as ammonia containing Windex and bleach, emit toxins into our very insulated homes. Learning the ingredients to avoid can seemingly require a chemistry degree, so best to circumvent the learning curve and make your own, or buy brands like BioKleen or Method with only two or three ingredients on the label. Simple, inexpensive, and effective cleaning products can be made from grapefruit seed extract, baking soda and water for a scrubbing paste, vinegar and water for wipe-downs, and lemon. For an all-purpose cleaner, combine 1 tablespoon of borax and one tablespoon of vinegar with two cups of water. Throw in some essential oils, like a drop or two of lavender, if you want to get fancy! Avoid any product that claims to be anti-bacterial.

Toxic Teflon: Why? Because if heating a pan in a closed environment can kill a pet bird, it can’t be healthy for you or your baby. PFCs such as Teflon have been implicated in endocrine- and immune-system health risks. Cast-iron, ceramic and glass cookware are your best bets. Look on eBay for some used retro pans and pots, such as Corning Vision.

Healthy H2O: Why? Because our water has become the repository for all of our bad practices as a society. Pesticides, pharmaceuticals, persistent industrial chemicals (including added fluoride in some municipalities) all render our tap water a hazard to our health. I have particular concerns about fluoride because I treat women’s brains (and often their thyroids), and fluoride poses known risks to these tissues. This was recently exposed in a Harvard meta-analysis, but has been acknowledged by concerned experts for many decades. I recommend installing a reverse-osmosis and carbon filter under the sink to eliminate most of these nasties for all cooking and drinking purposes, and a less-expensive shower filter to eliminate vaporized chlorine. Bring your water with you so you don’t have to use the water cooler in the office—it likely uses a No. 7 bottle.

Quality Cosmetics: Why? Because our skin is a major entry point to our bodies, and what we slather on it (and on our lips) may make its way to our more vulnerable parts. Look out for parabens, TEA (triethanolamine), propylene glycol, PEG (polyethylene glycol), fragrance (pthalates), sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, triclosan (in antibacterials), as well as toluene and formaldehyde in nail polish. EWG’s top agents of concern are: 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, BHA, boric acid and sodium borate, DMDM hydantoin, oxybenzone, triclosan. As a New Yorker for both of my pregnancies, abstaining from nail salon culture was a major lifestyle change. I now am a huge fan of buffing, which avoids all polish products. It’s clean and polished-looking at the same time! Check out your health-food store purchases for their safety rating. Sephora has a growing line of green cosmetics, and Whole Foods is a good place to start, although scan the labels for any of the above. As for sunscreen, I like Badger brand, or others that use non-micronized zinc and are free of oxybenzone. Natural bug sprays like Bite Blocker and California Baby use essential oils rather than DEET.

Safer Cosmetics are Free Of:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

  • Parabens

  • TEA (Triethanolamine)

  • Propylene Glycol

  • PEG (polyethylene glycol)

  • Fragrance (pthalates)

  • Triclosan

  • Toluene

  • Formaldehyde

Minimize Magnetic Fields: Why? Because this invisible form of pollution is totally unstudied and has been suspected to negatively impact cellular functioning in some sensitive individuals. We are electrical beings—in fact, many of the treatments I offer patients are intended to subtly rebalance electrical properties of the nervous system. If you suspect you may be one of them, consider Earthing technology for its energy rebalancing effects. Even if you’re not, sleep with your cell phone at least 6 feet from your bed, don’t wear it on your body, and use an air tube headset or a landline when possible. I also recommend that you budget in three minutes at the airport before a flight to request a pat-down instead of going through the full-body scanner and subjecting your DNA to ionizing radiation.

Air Awareness: Why? Airborne pollutants and volatile chemicals come in and stay in. HEPA filters and removal of shoes are helpful ways to minimize the particulate matter that comes off of household items. One of particular concern is PDBEs, or flame retardants, which have been linked to a number of adverse fetal outcomes and to high cancer rates in fire fighters. These agents are in foam furniture and flameresistant carpets and couches, and even baby clothing. Here are some brands committed to eliminating usage: Acer, Apple, Eizo Nanao, LG Electronics, Lenovo, Matsushita, Microsoft, Nokia, Phillips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony-Ericsson, and Toshiba. Tropical plants are a natural way to lower volatile organic chemicals. Consider keeping 15 to 20 for every 1,800 square feet of space.

Opt for Organic: Why? Because, in my opinion, nothing is more important. I see current industrial farming practices as the root of all evil—the assault on biodiversity of food species (corn, soy, wheat and rice account for two-thirds of the modern American’s diet), corruption of soil microbiome (which is essential to plant health and nutrient content), petrochemical dependency, persecution of the local farmer, feeding livestock all manner of modified grains they were never meant to eat—the list goes on. The concern about food laced with pesticides is that you get a toxic load of chemicals that are very active in the body. A recent report on the potential harm associated with the most ubiquitously applied herbicide, glyphosate, typically applied to “Round-up Ready” genetically modified crops (soy, corn, sugar beets, etc.), discusses the potential role of this chemical in the depletion of tryptophan (a serotonin precursor and essential amino acid) and the alteration of gut flora functioning related to the pesticide’s bactericidal effects on gut microbiota. These changes can increase your susceptibility to other toxins because of effects on metabolic enzymes. Our gut bugs are responsible for nutrient absorption, vitamin production and immune protection.

I’m of the opinion that during pregnancy and lactation, a woman’s diet should be as close to 100 percent organic as possible, but if you need to prioritize, at the top of the page is a list of foods that are less likely to be sprayed, even if not organic. Do your best to avoid canned foods, unless you know they’re explicitly BPA-free, like Eden Organics. For meat and dairy, look for the term “pastured.” This is now being used, in a largely unregulated fashion, to refer to the fact that the animal had natural exposure to grass and associated nutrients.

This is a work in progress, and one that hopefully will inspire new ways to regulate an industry that has such an important impact on our overall well-being and the cost of our healthcare. As Victoria Maizes, M.D., says, we need “beyond organic” to reverse some of the concerning aspects of our food supply. That said, if you adopt even some of these principles, you will be ahead of the curve.

I try to steer clear of the doom-and-gloom science of the intergenerational effects of these toxins on our growing babies. Suffice it to say that independent data that is not industry funded has raised a troubling signal, enough to trigger the precautionary principle. We cannot wait for our government to act before we make an effort to protect ourselves. The U.K. has taken a bold stance recently in formally recommending many of the above tips to its pregnant population. Remember that stress-management through the relaxation response (i.e. breathing meditation), exercise, and a nutrientdense diet all help your body manage these toxins in the best way possible. In the end, we just want to get out of the way of our bodies and let them do what they know how to do best…achieve natural balance.

Foods less likely to be sprayed with pesticides:

  • Onions

  • Avocados

  • Sweet corn

  • Pineapples

  • Mango

  • Sweet peas

  • Asparagus

  • Kiwi Fruit

  • Cabbage

  • Eggplant

  • Cantaloupe

  • Watermelon

  • Grapefruit

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Sweet onions